Pasco’s elections official rejected 2020 conspiracies. Then he faced threats.

Pasco County election supervisors Brian Corley said he faced threats after the 2020 election. Heightened harassment is driving out election workers across the country.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian E. Corley. TIMES (2008)
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian E. Corley. TIMES (2008) [ WIGINTON, KERI | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published June 28, 2021|Updated June 28, 2021

When Pasco County elections supervisor Brian Corley first began receiving insult-riddled voicemails ahead of the 2020 election, he almost thought it was humorous.

“Then it went real south,” Corley told the Times. Callers directed slurs at call center staff, sometimes threatening bodily harm. In December, after Corley made public comments condemning unfounded claims that the election had been stolen, protesters showed up at his office, then outside the house where his ex-wife and son live. Harassment and threats escalated.

Corley said some of the threats, which he declined to detail, seemed credible. The FBI and Pasco Sheriff’s Office got involved, and quickly “nipped it in the bud,” Corley said.

The Republican elections supervisor knew that some people wouldn’t like him saying that the election had been secure and the country needed to accept that Joe Biden had beaten Donald Trump in the race for president. He’d seen how elections officials in other parts of the country had been harassed and threatened. But he hadn’t anticipated quite the level of vitriol he received in a state that had gone firmly for Trump and been lauded for its smooth 2020 election.

“I was a little angry, and paranoid,” Corley said. The courage of election workers facing death threats in other states for speaking the truth inspired him, he said.

Related: ‘Stop the destructive rhetoric’: Pasco election chief rips Trump’s ‘baseless’ voting conspiracies

In Florida, harassment of elections administrators has generally been more muted than in some other states, officials say.

But nationally, some elections workers are reporting death threats and other harassment amid persistent, unfounded narratives of election malfeasance in the months after Trump’s November defeat. Nearly one in three local election officials across the country have felt unsafe because of their job, according to an April survey published this month by the Brennan Center for Justice. One in six reported being threatened, the study said.

The threats, prompted by viral misinformation and conspiracy theories, menace the essential work of running fair elections, experts say. Amid concerns about violence and harassment, some seasoned election workers across the country are leaving the field. Nate Persily, a Stanford professor and leading election law expert, said these departures could pave the way for increased politicization of what is generally nonpartisan election administration.

“I’m worried that you have veteran elections officials who are committed to a management approach to our democracy who will be replaced by partisans who do not share a similar commitment to democratic values and the rule of law,” Persily said.

Election fraud narratives will “almost certainly” spur domestic extremists to violence this year, election security expert Noah Praetz told Florida’s 67 county elections supervisors earlier this month during a conference in Tampa. The concern echoed a March report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Election administration expert David Becker said he’s “more worried today” than he was during the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

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Becker pointed to Arizona’s controversial election audit ordered by the state’s GOP-led Senate, as well as a slew of “unnecessary” changes to states’ election laws in the wake of what Trump’s then-top cybersecurity official had said was “the most secure election in American history.”

Becker fears the atmosphere for election workers will just continue to get tougher, and said he’s already seen “an exodus of election officials” across the country.

Several elections supervisors in Florida said they hadn’t received any threats or harassment out of the ordinary. But the atmosphere nationwide is something they’re closely watching, said Palm Beach County elections supervisor Wendy Sartory Link.

Related: Where's the drama? Not in Florida, and that's fine with elections officials

Corley decided to speak out after he saw Georgia election official Gabe Sterling say publicly in December that “someone is going to get killed” if then-President Donald Trump continued to push conspiracy theories debating the election.

“With every deep state conspiracy and illegitimate claim of fraud our democracy sinks deeper and deeper into divisiveness,” Corley wrote in a statement shared Dec. 2.

Protesters went into his West Pasco office looking to confront him the next day, he said. When they realized he wasn’t there, they went to what they thought was his address, the home where his ex-wife and son live. The protesters played music, waved flags and were “generally disruptive” from the street, he said.

But some protesters later identified his personal address, and some seemingly credible online threats were made, Corley said. It was then that law enforcement interceded.

“For several weeks, I was told to be very conscious of my surroundings,” Corley said.

In late January, a man loudly interrupted Corley throughout a speech to the Wesley Chapel Republican Club reflecting on Pasco’s 2020 election. Afterward, Corley said the man muttered to him that he was “going to beat [Corley’s] ass.” The experience, which he described as the worst two hours of his professional career, rattled him.

“An elected official, just talking about elections in America,” he said. “And not only was I unsuccessful, but I got physically threatened.”

Corley was re-elected in 2020 and plans to continue working in election administration. He says he’s talked with peers who are exasperated and may leave their elections offices. He’s concerned about who might replace election supervisors that leave.

He said he still regularly talks to residents who believe Trump won re-election.

“No matter what I tell them to refute misinformation, it just falls on deaf ears,” he said.

Ion Sancho, former Leon County Supervisor of Elections, said some of the blame lands on Republican leaders, who have not worked to stop the election misinformation.

“Proof and evidence don’t matter anymore. What only matters is the ‘big lie,’ and catering to the ‘big lie,’” Sancho said.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said earlier this month that her office hasn’t seen any increase in reports of threatening comments or behavior compared to other election years. But she said any threats are unacceptable, saying the state’s elections supervisors should be commended for the 2020 elections they ran.

“We are doing everything we can to let the supervisors and their staff know that we support them,” Lee said.